X-Message-Number: 27354
From: "Basie" <>
Subject: Ice Worms
Date: Sat, 12 Nov 2005 16:52:01 -0500

N.J. Biologist Studies Ice-Hardy Worms By CHRIS NEWMARKER, Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. - Normally fodder for anglers and early birds, worms are now 
getting attention at     NASA - particularly a little-known species that 
lives in freezing temperatures and can survive two years without food.

Researchers hope the hardy wigglers can unlock the secrets of how life might 
survive on distant ice worlds such as Jupiter's moon Europa, as well as 
provide answers to more earthbound problems such as preserving transplant 
organs kept on ice.

NASA recently gave Daniel Shain, an associate professor of biology at 
Rutgers-Camden, a three-year, $214,206 grant to figure what makes the ice 
worms such survivors.

The threadlike, black Mesenchytraeus solifugus - which feed on 
microorganisms as they crawl through tiny ice cracks in coastal mountain 
glaciers in Alaska, British Columbia and Washington state - thrive at the 
freezing point of 32 degrees, Shain said.

Drop the temperature a few degrees and they freeze. Raise it a few degrees 
and their flesh starts to melt.

"If you put an earthworm or any other organism on ice, they wouldn't live 
very well," Shain said. "But with an ice worm, they come to life."

Shain, who has studied the worms for a decade, says many people who live 
around the mountains in Alaska have never heard of the inch-long worms, or 
believe they are mythological creatures.

But get out on a glacier right after the sun goes down, and the surface of 
the ice turns gray as the worms rise to the surface.

"You can't miss them," Shain said. "There are millions of them."

During his research trips, Shain uses a "regular old spoon" to scoop 
thousands of worms into a cooler, then seals it with duct tape and ships it 
back to Camden.

The biologist, who travels to Alaska about every other year, has contacts in 
the region who make sure he gets a steady supply of worms for experiments.

His most remarkable work involves a molecule that stores energy in the cells 
of living organisms, he said. Most organisms produce less of the molecule 
when temperatures become colder, but the worms produce more.

Shain - along with graduate biology student Brittany Morrison - hypothesize 
that ice worms don't have a mechanism that regulates the energy-storing 

His work piqued attention at NASA because conditions on the glaciers are 
very much like conditions on some cold planets that scientists theorize have 
a chance of harboring life, Shain said. Figuring out how ice worms live will 
help scientists if life is ever discovered on another icy world such as 

Eric DeChaine, a     National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow, first 
saw ice worms during his studies on species in mountain environments.

Only a handful of researchers across the country study the worms, but he 
says interest has grown in recent years, with some experts envisioning 
potential applications for space travel and others seeking evidence of 
global warming.

"Worms have been these creatures that people think to put on their 
fishhook," DeChaine said, "but now they're receiving attention because they 
can live near thermal ocean vents or inside mountain glaciers."

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